in Higher Ed

“Be All You Can Be” marketing

The military is an marketing tour de force. I mean, at their core, they have the worst product to sell of any marketer outside of funeral directors. They sell war.

Kids these days sure like playing war games on their Playstation 3, but the vast majority aren’t interested in fighting in them.

With such an unsavory product, the services have to find other ways to convince people to serve. You know all of this. What you don’t know, is how much colleges and universities can learn from these marketing tactics.

1. You don’t need a million dollar marketing campaign to be an effective recruiter.
Military recruiters create personal relationships. You’d be amazed what recruiters will do, to get a kid to join the service. Help them get drivers licenses, bank accounts, buy them food and more. It’s not about lying to kids, as they do get a bad rap for that. (And for some, there’s a reason for that tag…) But the bottom line here is creating a connection and making them feel like they belong, well before they get a uniform and rank.

The recruiting commercials, video games and web site might bring them in to talk, the power of persuasion comes once they’re at the recruiting stage and the sale begins.

2. Your key influencers are the success stories you generate.
Even if someone has no one close to them who has ever served, having people say “I was in the military and then I had [insert success here]” is a powerful message. How many folks, especially these days are able to say that about their alma mater. The ones who have such stories are probably somewhere being successful and aren’t coming into contact with the people of whom would be influenced by these stories.

For every sad story of someone who dies in the horror of war, there are dozens more who are integrated into society, able to tell the story of how serving their country meant something to them.

These days, college kids graduate and lament their ballooning student loan debt and how they learned more outside of school than they did when they were attending classes. Military veterans talk about discipline, motivation, self-respect and personal growth.

I’m not saying that college should be like the military, but it’s clear that we’re failing at something.

3. The sale doesn’t end after they’ve matriculated.
For military folks, the hard part is the beginning. As you grow in your career, you’re given opportunities to prove yourself in real world environments and your newfound confidence is tested early and often. You feel like you’re good enough, because you’re basically tested to believe it.

For college kids? It’s a mixed bag. The “you get out of it what you make it,” adage applies here, but we can do a better job of providing students with support once they’ve reached campus. I know lots of schools are thinking about this more and more, but, there is still a great sense of alienation and loneliness that sets in from being in an environment that these days, resembles high school far more than a pre-professional growth opportunity.

4. Never be afraid to change it up.
People scoffed when the Army abandoned its longtime slogan “Be All You Can Be” and went for an Army of One. Folks thought this was heresy. The Air Force has gone through strange marketing conversions over the past few years and all the while, the Marines seemed to keep chugging away with their same campaign that’s worked well for them. (The Few. The Proud.)

But one thing that’s been consistent is not a failure to adapt to modern times. The services have bigger budgets than most colleges and universities and unparalleled access, sure. But they’re not afraid to use the resources at their disposal to change their approach, to reflect a change in the times.

Meanwhile, we have a lot of colleges and universities that are still doing the same things they did recruiting in the 1980s, that they’re doing now, only with better computers and printers that aren’t dot matrix.

So, are there any other ways we can truly change the way we market in higher ed? Or am I completely off my rocker?

  1. Every time I watch the TV ads for the Canadian armed forces (yes! we do have an army in Canada!) even I pretty much want to join up! The tagline is “Fight Fear. Fight Chaos. Fight with the Canadian Forces” and it shows the army doing great things, like rescuing people from a plane crash or catching a ship that has a cargo of illegal drugs. I think it’s because they sell the idea of actually doing something important and courageous with your life, and making a real change in the world. Higher ed is so selfishly focused: “Here’s what YOU can get out of our college/program”. Great. Not that exciting, though. The army is calling to a disciplined, brave, and selfless side of people, and is assuming that they have these qualities instead of underestimating people as purely selfish right away. Not saying that the army really ends up being that way or even that the campaigns work (I have no idea if people are actually joining the Canadian army!) or that people really have those qualities . . . just saying it’s cool to see a different approach from appealing to people’s selfish instincts. I think higher ed could incorporate something that appeals to the better qualities in people. Iv’e seen it done, but it could be done more!

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